Writing and Editing

The Thing About Genres

I recently finished reading a novel by Tess Thompson, entitled Caramel and Magnolias. I met Ms. Thompson after taking a dialogue-writing workshop from her at a writer’s conference. I was impressed with Ms. Thompson, her advice, anecdotes, and general attitude toward the craft. So I thought I should read some of her work.

It was funny. When I asked her which novel I should read (she had seven published at the time in at least two series) she wasn’t sure which to recommend because she doesn’t write for a male audience. In short, she writes chick-lit.

I have always been of the mind that if a story is good and the author tells it well that it doesn’t matter what genre it is. (Though, to be honest, I do prefer some genres over others. Without some outside reason like many recommendations from trusted friends or a personal relationship with the author, I probably wouldn’t pick up a romance.) But hey, I read Love Story all on my own.

So I dove into Caramel and Magnolias, which is considered romantic suspense, and read it in something like three days. My impression? It was good. Not great, but an entertaining read. I never felt the need to skip over a passage; never wanted to just walk away. Her characters were rendered well enough that I cared about them and what happened to them. It was good.

But my strongest impression had to do with the manner in which she chose to write the story. In short, she chose this novel exactly opposite of how I would have written it.

Let me explain. There are four basic plots in the novel: one follows a detective’s investigation of a shady adoption agency; the second follows a young woman who has given up on love for ten years and whether she will allow it into her life again; the third involves the first woman’s best friend, who is in a loveless marriage and an unsuccessful quest for motherhood; the fourth involves a male bartender friend of the two women and his unrequited love for the married friend. All are interesting. All are very human.

The way Ms. Thompson chose to write the novel, the two love stories—the loveless woman and the detective, and the friend/mother and the bartender—were the primary plots, while the investigation was pretty much a minor subplot.

If I had written this novel, using the same basic plot elements, I would have concentrated mostly on the detective’s investigation, with his affair with the loveless woman as a major subplot. Everything else would have fallen back to minor subplots.

Now I’m not saying my way would be better, or worse. It would just be different. Ms. Thompson wrote the novel the way she did and it is romantic suspense. If I had written in the way I prefer, it would have been a detective novel, possibly a mystery.

The only real difference between the genres is in what the author chooses to emphasize.

To take it another step, add scenes showing the bad guy’s thoughts and motivations to my version of the novel could turn it from a detective novel into a thriller. Add a lot of gunplay, it becomes action/adventure.

My point here is to point out that the sole difference between many genres is simply a matter of what the author chooses to emphasize.

Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part Two

Last week, I went over some of the notes I’d taken during the workshop I attended at the South Coast Writers Conference on dialogue, taught by Tess Thompson, author of seven romantic suspense novels. Much of it is refresher, but we all need to be reminded time and again, right?

This week, part two of dialogue, some of which I hadn’t actually put a name to, though I instinctively tried to use it in my own work.

But enough of my prattle. On with Notes on Dialogue, Part Two.

What to Avoid?

Dialogue is not a source of facts. This is not to say that there are no facts presented in dialogue, just that any facts presented are of less importance than the characterization. The primary place to reveal facts is narration/exposition.

Dialogue should not be used to describe people, places, or objects. Unless it’s in the context of characterization, (so what’s said may or may not be true).

Dialogue is not a substitute for narrative.

Dialogue is not used to express the extended brooding of a character. This almost never happens in real life (most people wouldn’t put up with it). Instead, this brooding type passage should be dealt with in internal speech or narrative.


Dialogue is not always grammatically correct. In fact, it usually isn’t. Most people, even the most highly-educated, seldom speak in complex or complete sentences. This gets worse in times of stress. Dialogue should reflect this, but not so tied to reality as to be boring.

Vernacular or Dialect

It is out of fashion these days to phonetically spell how people speak. It slows readers down and makes the dialogue hard to understand. Instead, suggest the difference through word and vocabulary choice, syntax, and content to render the dialect. Or you could just say she spoke with a deep southern drawl and leave it at that.


In ninety-nine percent of all cases, use the simplest attribution possible: he said, she said, etc. All you’re trying to do is show the reader who is talking where it can be confusing. Beyond that, “he said” is nearly invisible. Using clever attributions like “she surmised” or “he inquired” is amateurish and falls under the category of telling, not showing.

The other one percent forms the exception to the rule and should be limited to an occasional “whispered” or “groaned,” something that works.

This next portion is what I found particularly interesting, the non-vocal part of dialogue. I have been instinctively reaching for that aspect as my skill level increased, but never had a truly intellectual grasp of the subject before now. Now there it is, written in simple phrases, silence and subtext and how to use it to add richness and depth to our dialogue.

Other parts of dialogue (besides speaking).


It can be a method of conveying how something is said. If you show a character shaking his fist in someone’s face as he speaks, saying “he shouted” is unnecessary.

It adds realism and authenticity to the dialogue because it is how we experience conversation in real life. People talk with their hands, they slump back in their chairs, or lean forward over the table. Conversation is never a sterile exchange of words.

It adds subtext to the dialogue, such as when the gesture or body language does not match the words being spoken. A cliché’s example is the couple arguing. The woman finally says “Fine.” But everything about her body language says everything is not fine.


Think about it. Few real conversations involve non-stop talking. Real conversation is a collage of our own vocals, our conversation partner’s vocals, reaction to the other person’s speech, interactions with the physical environment, and memories awakened or associated by the experience.

The object of dialogue is to create an illusion of real conversation, not a faithful copy of real conversation. (Real conversation is boring for the most part.)

How to evoke the silences.

A descriptive passage of the setting.

We see this often (in real life) as people engaged in conversation enter a new room or building. Their conversation pauses as they acquaint themselves with their new surroundings. Dialogue mimics this by inserting a quick sketch of a new location, then the conversation resumes.

Provide an unspoken thought or memory as a reaction to something said.

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Someone in a conversation says something that triggers a memory. For a moment or two, we may even be concentrating on the memory so much we miss part of what is being said.

Provide an association related to the dialogue.

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering or profound. Her dinner partner says something about the parking garage at work and she wonders whether she remembered to close her garage door.


What characters don’t say is as important (often more important) than what they do say. Using body language, gestures, and oblique references, the character will signal what they really want, even when it’s at odds with what they say they want.

Think of the age-old courtship rituals of the teen-aged human. She really, really wants him to ask her to the prom, but will go to great lengths to pretend it isn’t important to her. The boy will do the same, agonizing over the mixed signals he’s receiving, but pretending to not care. It would be so much easier if both would just admit what they want. But it would also be much less interesting.

That’s what we’re also shooting for in our fictional dialogue.

The best dialogue conveys what is being said as well as what is being implied.

Consider this passage from the master of understatement, Ernest Hemingway, in his story “Hills Like White Elephants:”

“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl looked at the beaded curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said. “What does it say?”

The passage absolutely oozes unspoken tension between the couple, though nothing is actually said about the subject. In fact, they seem to be actively avoiding the subject of their disagreement as well as the disagreement itself.

It’s why I call him the master, because he is very, very good.


Characters need to be constantly saying (literally and figuratively) no to each other. This is what causes tension in the scene. Without it there is none and the scene should be cut.

The whole subject of non-verbal communication in fiction reminds me of a semi-famous quote from the jazz great Miles Davis. He was speaking about music, but the idea applies to the literary arts also.

“Music is the space between the notes. It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”

Great dialogue is not about the words our characters say; it’s the ones they don’t say.

Just something to think about.

And thanks again to Tess Thompson for providing these insights.

Writing advice

Notes on Dialogue, Part One

Last week I mentioned that I would be spending the weekend at the South Coast Writers Conference, gathering material and, I hope, learning some new skills and brushing up some old ones. Now I can truthfully say I am not disappointed. It is always an amazing experience, learning new things, meeting fellow writers and networking. Though it took a couple of days to recover I am now refreshed and have a new enthusiasm for the craft.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have the opportunity to attend a writers conference, by all means, do. You will not regret it.

So now, to business.

On Friday, I attended a full-day workshop on dialogue. For a writer of fiction, one must above all be a master of dialogue. Many thanks to Tess Thompson, author of Blue Midnight and many more romantic suspense titles for helping us brush up on this skill.

Without further ado: Notes on Dialogue.

Three types of dialogue.

Summarized: the conversation is condensed and simplified. Lowest dramatic action.

Example: At home in the first few months, he and Maizie had talked brightly about changes that would make the company more profitable and more attractive to a prospective buyer: new cuts, new packaging, new advertising, new incentives to make supermarkets carry the brand.

Joan Wickersham “Commuter Marriage”

Indirect Speech: carries the feel of conversation without quotation. Medium dramatic action.

Example: Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.

God, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough.

Katherine Anne Porter “Rope”

Direct Quotation: the exchange is quoted as it happens. Highest dramatic action.


“But I thought you hardly knew her, Mr. Morning.”
He picked up a pencil and began to doodle on a notebook page. “Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, you did.”
“It’s true. I didn’t know her well.”
“What is it you’re after, then? Who was this person you’re investigating?”
“I would like to know that too.”

Siri Hustvedt “Mr. Morning”

The Four Functions of Dialogue

To help reveal and express characterization

This is what most of us associate with dialogue.


“So I talked to Johnson,” Parish said. “He says go ahead. But if it blows up in our faces, it’s our asses.”
“Figures. Plausible deniability.”

The author of this passage has one character give a summary of another conversation to advance the plot. (They received conditional permission from their boss).

Sets the Scene

“We didn’t know no one was up here. We thought hit a summer camp all closed up. Curtains all closed up. Nothing here. No cars or gear, not nothing. Looks closed to me, don’t hit to you, J.J.?”

Joy Williams “Woods”

Reading just the above passage, we can make assumptions about where the story is taking place and much about the characters involved, all in two short, heavily-loaded lines.

Advances the action

“The surgeon will speak to you,” says the Radiologist.
“Are you finding something?”
“The surgeon will speak to you,” the Radiologist says again. “There seems to be something there, but the surgeon will talk to you about it.”
“My uncle once had something on his kidney,” says the Mother. “So they removed the kidney and it turned out the something was benign.”
The Radiologist smiles a broad, ominous smile. “That’s always the way it is,” he says. “You don’t know exactly what it is until it’s in the bucket.”
“The bucket,” the Mother repeats.
“That’s doctor talk,” the Radiologist says.
“It’s very appealing,” says the Mother. “It’s a very appealing way to talk.”

Lorrie Moore “People Like That Are The Only People Here”

In this passage, the author lets us know that something bad is about to happen and demonstrates the character’s attitude toward the doctors and their jargon.

Read a passage of your own dialogue. It must do at least two of the four tasks listed. If it doesn’t, re-work or delete it.

Some General Principles:

Dialogue concentrates on characters feelings; narrative states the facts.

Every character should speak differently. Try switching the attribution between characters. If the dialogue still works, the dialogue is not defined well enough.

Every character’s speech changes depending on what audience she’s addressing. We do not speak the same way to our buddy on the softball team, as we do to our pastor, as we do to our boss at work.

Every character’s speech changes according to mood. He will not speak the same after his girlfriend agrees to marry him as he does after another day of fruitless job hunting.

So, that’s a brief overview of the principles of dialogue. Much of this we already knew, but a refresher course is always a good idea. Next week we’ll look at some of the more subtle aspects of creating killer dialogue.